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Montgomery firefighter raises richer than first described

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This article has been updated.

When Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s office confirmed the new proposed financial package for career firefighters Monday — an 8.25 percent wage increase over three years — it seemed as if they’d gotten shortchanged.

Most members of Montgomery’s general government employees union would receive 13.5 over two years under the pact that Leggett will figure into in his fiscal 2014 budget.

Turns out that the county’s deal with the International Association of Firefighters Local 1664 is much better than initially described. The total value is closer to 20 percent, including “catch-up” increases of 3.5 percent for most firefighters in two of the three years.

Leggett’s position is that firefighters are overdue after a series of wage freezes and benefit reductions. Officials also point out that Montgomery firefighters rank seventh of 12 area jurisdictions in compensation: $41,613 for an entry-level position, compared to $52,852 in Fairfax. Further up the experience ladder, the gap is wider: $74,272 versus $90,731 in Prince George’s.

The catch-up increases are part of the estimated $5 million annual cost of the contract.

Leggett said this week that he negotiated the significant raises to avoid binding arbitration that might have led to even more expensive labor agreements. Two years ago, he rejected arbitrator awards and went to court to challenge the county law requiring binding arbitration in the event of an impasse with unions. He argued that the law requiring arbitration did not apply to the county executive and was at odds with the county charter.

He won the first round in circuit court but the unions have appealed.

In September, the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out an Anne Arundel County law that allowed the council to ignore arbitrators’ decisions. The measure weakened a county charter amendment approved by voters in 2002 that required binding arbitration. Leggett and county attorneys said they are concerned that the decision puts them on shakier legal ground.

A new legal opinion prepared for the County Council disputes Leggett’s reasoning. Robert Drummer, senior legislative attorney, said that even if the unions prevailed, it is unlikely that the courts would order the county to pay for the arbitration awards Leggett rejected. That’s because the suits only challenged the county executive’s authority to recommend a budget.

Moreover, Drummer said, the collective bargaining provisions in the Montgomery charter have more leeway than those in Anne Arundel. The Montgomery charter permits, but does not require, binding arbitration in bargaining with general county employees.

Drummer said that a Court of Appeals decision might ultimately lead to retroactive awards to Montgomery police and firefighters, but “the court expressly declined to go that far” in the Anne Arundel case.

Council member Phil Andrews, a candidate for county executive next year who has been outspokenly critical of Leggett’s labor deals, said Friday that Drummer’s opinion “shows that County Executive Leggett is blowing smoke.” Andrews added that his “irresponsible” agreements open the door for Montgomery public school teachers to get a similar, if not better, contract.

“He ought to know better. He’s a former law dean,” Andrew said. (Leggett was assistant dean of Howard University Law School from 1979 to 1986)

“And Phil Andrews is what?” asked Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield. “I think my 11-year-old son knows more about negotiating with unions than Phil Andrews.”

Lacefield said Drummer “lays out the best-case, rosiest scenario — not necessarily the most likely and certainly not the worst case, either of which could risk arbitrated awards backed by courts in the future that could put the county on the hook for tens of millions of dollars more than the current agreement. That is the risk.”

Lacefield added that Leggett’s austere approach to the past four budget years — which included no wage hikes and cuts in health-care and retirement benefits — have saved the county more than $200 million.

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